By Eddie Pipkin

My two great-nephews are in town for a visit, and in my official capacity as “fun uncle” (and now fun great-uncle), I decided to take them to a water park.  I haven’t spent a lot of extended time with the greats, so I wasn’t fully up to speed on their specific personality quirks or level of real-world, real-time maturity.  And, as everybody knows, water parks are notoriously confusing to navigate, twisted in on themselves in a landscape engineer’s fever dream.  I hadn’t spearheaded such an excursion in a while, and I tried to remember all the tricks for keeping everybody together (and safely reunited when we eventually failed to keep together).  Did we get separated?  Yes, we did.  When all was said and done, did I have a list of things I wished I had remembered, communications wise?  Yes, I did.

It is entirely possible to think that one is communicating effectively and clearly and still get it wrong.  It is possible to work to anticipate potential sources of miscommunication and still make a mistake.  Such mistakes and miscues are inevitable in any relationship, certainly in the complex relationships of ministry.  (Part of our regular team building should be clear strategies for addressing miscommunication when it inevitably happens.)  But a “checklist” system of communication action items can go a long way to prevent mishaps.

In the case of prepubescent boys and water parks, even if you think you are doing a great job of communicating very clearly, there are potential glitches.  Water parks are, in fact, an excellent petri dish for experiments in communication, because you can’t use technology as a crutch, since it’s one of those rare  environments in which people aren’t carrying around their cell phones:

  • Perhaps you say, “I’ll meet you right here at the Lazy River entrance,” and find out later that the Lazy River has not one, but two entrances.
  • Perhaps you say, “When you’re done with this slide, stay right here at this bench by the exit, and we’ll come to you,” but you forget to add a stipulation that accounts for the need for an emergency bathroom excursion.
  • Perhaps you say, “If we get separated, return to our designated beach chair where we’ve left our towels and bag,” and you’ve made sure that everybody knows how to navigate back to this one meet-up spot, but you forgot the part where you added “and stay there until I return and we check in with each other!”

Ah, so many adventures!  Ministry offers an even greater number of opportunities for ‘ships that pass in the night’ moments.  Sometimes, these incidents lead to laughs.  Sometimes, they result in real damage.  I recommend some habits that increase the odds that everyone is on the same page:

  • The Pause. Slow down when communicating and give everyone a few moments to process what has just been said.  Leave space for people to ask questions and maybe even say, “Does anybody have any questions?” or even “Can you think of any way these instructions could be misinterpreted?”
  • The Recitation of the Obvious. Never assume that something can go unspoken because it is so clearly obvious that everyone understands it.  Say even the obvious parts out loud.  [Here I’ll offer a side story.  Once upon a time, long ago, pre-cell phone days, I was taking a youth group from Orlando to Valdosta, Georgia for a trip, and I thought it would be hysterical when we crossed the state line to ask them all if they had turned their watches back an hour for the time change – and that WAS good for a big laugh until the next day when half of them were an hour late returning to the bus.  I had never recited the obvious, that I had been pranking them.  The joke was on me.]
  • The Repeat. Say things more than once and say them in multiple formats.  This is mandatory in ministry, especially in communications to larger groups (such as the entire congregation).  As a rule of thumb, for congregational communication, you have to repeat things at least five times on at least three different platforms before the message begins to sink in.  (Our churches are filled with people who have been exposed to three months of announcements about an event, who then report, “Oh,  I didn’t know that was happening.”)  In staff and volunteer meetings, be sure and repeat the important stuff as the meeting is winding down.  In as many settings as possible, if you can have people repeat what you have said back to you in their own words, you will have a strong sense of whether the message has been successfully delivered.  This is a great technique for uncovering miscommunication (when everybody thought that they were on the same page – suddenly a lack of clarity is revealed!).
  • The Write-Down. Written communication is always superior to spoken communication.  I’m very fond of the Edgar V. Roberts quote: “Unwritten thought is incomplete thought.”  Sure, it is more work to write things down, but it is inevitably a time saver.  It is frequently easier to make a phone call than send an email, but it is also not only a more likely path to confusion, but spoken-only communication means there’s no written record to resolve any future message misalignment.  Definitely for any meeting that happens (no matter the size), someone should be making notes and sending out a quick recap (or an extensive recap if the decisions in the meeting are mission critical).  Just as the exercise in verbally repeating things can clarify the message, having to write things down is a terrific insurance policy for unified messaging.
  • The Recap. When the inevitable miscommunication crisis arises, it’s important to have some strategy in place, not only for resolving it and moving forward, but also for figuring out what went wrong in order to prevent future reoccurrences.  In many ministry settings, this is an ad-hoc process, and it often devolves into an accusatory argument about who is to blame.  It is a healthier and more biblical approach to establish a “blame free zone,” and a forensic process that is designed not to establish fault but to guard against similar missteps in the future.

One way to do this would be to have a “Miscommunication Board” in the work room or other team area.  This would be a designated space to post examples of miscommunication (or potential miscommunication).  Publicly display such examples and provide a forum for team members to talk about them and propose alternatives.  These examples don’t even have to be specifically associated with your ministry, but they might also be things that your team members observe other places, attuning their eyes and ears to hyper-sensitivity for effective communication.

Some of you are reading this blog and feeling a surge of frustration that many of these steps seem redundant and unnecessary if everyone would just pay attention.  Frustration in this case is wasted energy.  It is just a fact of life in all relationships that communication takes work, and effective communication within large organizations takes extra hard work.  That’s why some institutions have communications professionals as part of the team (and yours may, too).  These professionals should not only be typing press releases and social media copy, but they should also be helping your entire team with occasional training in best practices.  Schedule such a session today!  And if you don’t have a paid communications professional on staff (which you probably don’t), this is a great opportunity for a volunteer in your church family to offer his or her expertise in support of your work.

What are some of your best tips and techniques for insuring clear communication in your ministry?  We’d love to hear some of your favorite ideas and most useful habits.  What are some your favorite stories of communication gone awry?  How can we all work to communicate better?  Express yourself (in written form – wink!) in the comments section.